Climate fears over India's middle class-driven car boom

New car buyers like Puneet Masih are not hard to find in India, where the country's fast-expanding vehicle fleet reflects the increasing appetite for private transport among the emerging middle classes.

Across Asia, millions of people each year are progressing from pushbikes to motorbikes and onto cars, as the region develops economically. But there are fears that the transition will have an environmental cost.

Masih is part of a trend that could see an explosion in carbon emissions from developing countries, as consumers look to emulate the lifestyle of their affluent counterparts in the West.

The education worker, 22, is undeterred by Mumbai's congested roads, which can turn even the shortest journey into a lengthy, frustrating crawl, and believes he is doing his bit by looking at fuel-efficient models.

"It's got a lot of cabin space, which gives you a lot of leg room space and the fuel efficiency is quite good. That's the main reason I'm here," he said while eyeing up a Mahindra Renault Logan outside a showroom in south Mumbai.

As for the problems of pollution, congestion and global warming, blamed by scientists on the sort of carbon emissions produced by vehicles the world over, he is counting on the government to find solutions.

"I'm hoping they can do it, otherwise '2012' is not far away," he told AFP, referring to the Hollywood blockbuster film about natural disasters caused by a catastrophic rise in the Earth's temperature.

India's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are expected to nearly triple in the next two decades from about 1.2 tonnes per person per year to 2.1 tonnes in 2020 and 3.5 tonnes in 2030, according to a recent government-backed report.

That is still below the global average of 4.2 tonnes per person.

But India's massive 1.1-billion population puts the country among the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters - and under pressure at next week's climate change summit in Copenhagen to commit to emissions cuts.

Top emitters China and the United States have already put figures on the table that quantify their commitments to mitigate their carbon footprints, putting the spotlight on India which is expected to make a similar gesture.

India and China have both rejected the idea of binding targets, however, which developed countries are demanding.

With transport emissions identified as a key driver of global warming, the rising number of cars on India's roads points to the country's potential as an even bigger emitter in the future.

India is one of the world's fastest-growing car markets and a target for all major foreign manufacturers which are keen to boost their sales, stagnating in developed markets.

Just over 1.5 million new cars were sold in 2008-9 and some analysts predict the market will triple in size by 2015.

Manufacturers are keen to stress their vehicles' environmental credentials. The biggest-selling models here are small cars, which are a far cry from the gas guzzlers popular in the United States, for example.

"I think in terms of technology of emissions control, Indian cars are pretty strict and do meet international norms quite well," said Darius Lam, associate editor of Autocar Professional magazine.

Anumita Roy Chowdury, associate director for research and advocacy at the independent Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, said India should not be judged by Western norms.

Overall car penetration is about seven per 1,000 people, compared with 600-800/1,000 in the West and more than half of people in cities use public transport.

"Even though we are beginning to see these rapid increases (in car ownership), these are the early stages of motorisation in India," she told AFP.

"Yes, it's increasing, but it's still not comparable with the kind of motorisation that we have already seen in the West."

In addition to the traffic-clogged streets, the increase in car ownership can already be seen in air pollution levels.

India's pollution watchdog has warned that the "exponential" increase in vehicles risks cancelling out air quality improvement measures such as the use of "cleaner" fuels and the phasing out of older vehicles.

The Central Pollution Control Board has said most of India's big cities are in "frequent violation" of air quality standards, with airborne particulate matter from noxious gases exceeding World Health Organization guidelines.

The WHO estimates that nearly 120,000 Indians die each year from polluted outdoor air, out of two million worldwide.

Dr Pramod Niphadkar, honorary secretary of the Asthma and Bronchitis Association of India, has seen a rise in pulmonary infections and conditions such as asthma and pneumonia in the past 30 years.

"Car pollution is the main and the sole factor which is responsible for the increase in the respiratory complaints of the patients," he said at his busy Mumbai clinic.

But for Chowdury, who heads the CSE's air pollution team, India is better placed than Western countries to tackle emissions, provided fuel efficiency and emissions standards are enforced and public transport boosted.

"It's a huge opportunity," she said. "If we're careful today and don't repeat the mistakes of the West, then we have a much better chance of our future trajectory being significantly different from the West."

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